Tweeting Mahler, Graham and Stoppard?

I once did marketing for an old vaudeville theatre-turned performing arts center that had amazing acoustics. One day I was walking past the telemarketing room where I overheard a young salesperson saying, “The acoustics in this theatre are so good that it’s like listening to a really well-produced CD with a great set of headphones.”

I thought of this yesterday when I read a story about tweeting during orchestral concerts in Pacific Standard Magazine (via Artsjournal.com). According to writer Tom Jacobs, a young Alabama journalist was recently asked to tweet from his seat at a symphony orchestra performance and afterward said, “The exercise helped transform me into more of an active listener, a true observer instead of merely an audience member.”

What’s fascinating about these comments is that they reveal a shift away from direct experience and toward mediated experiences. For the young telemarketer, the CD was the standard against which all other musical experiences might be compared. For the journalist, being a “true observer” wasn’t possible without a digital connection to an external social network. In both cases, having a direct, unmediated connection to the art was a lesser experience than one that could be had with the aid of technology.

As an arts marketer I tend to sell the experience of connecting directly with art because I believe it’s the transcendent ideal and that an unfiltered relationship is superior to any other means of arts participation. But I’m 53 years old. I was raised in a culture that believed in direct, immersive connections and my perspective is tied to my generation. Younger people who were raised in more highly mediated, less focused environments may not have the inclination or capacity for full immersion and may not be prepared to benefit the way my generation did from the experiences I’m often trying to sell.

In his article, Jacobs quotes researcher Clifford Nass who claims that young multi-taskers may not value the deep attention that direct experience requires. “That’s a cultural shift,” says Nass. “Artists have to think about what that means, and what they want to do about it.”

Personally, I think it means the days of sophisticated plays, operas, ballets and symphonic works that rely on measured temporal development are probably on their way out. The idea of sitting quietly, willingly, yieldingly and patiently in a theatre or concert hall giving oneself over to a complex communal artistic experience may be obsolete. Some people say that’s a good thing – that it was an artificial product of an overly fussy 19th century attitude about art that’s no longer useful. I can see their point, but I’m conflicted about having to toss out all the great works that were created to be experienced in such a context. It’s possible that this era of unmediated communal artistic immersion, rather than having been a forgettable anomaly, was one of the greatest achievements of human civilization.

Should we invite social media into theaters and concert halls and encourage young people to add our artistic products to their ongoing multi-tasking endeavors? Maybe the answer is both yes and no. If we’re presenting fare that doesn’t ask much of its audience and lends itself to being sampled in small bites, why not? You don’t have to pay much attention to Wicked or the Chinese Acrobats or John Williams’ movie scores to have a nice time at a show.

But asking someone to tweet through Stoppard’s Arcadia or a Mahler symphony or Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring is just plain ludicrous. It doesn’t make sense to produce art that demands immersion for its payoff and then invite people to skim across the surface. They won’t be able to get from it what it was designed to deliver. And we risk having them find it obscure and off-putting and then sit there telling the world what a bad time they’re having while they’re having it.

The day may come when a new generation of great artists create brilliant new works for immersion-averse multi-taskers, but as long as we’re producing work that was designed for fully engaged, undivided audiences, we should do everything we can to get new people to come and stop apologizing for asking them to pay attention when they get there.

If the alternative is to produce art that doesn’t require a direct connection just to get more people to come to live events, why bother?

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7 thoughts on “Tweeting Mahler, Graham and Stoppard?

  1. Trevor, I’m with you. Then again, I’m of the same generation. The thought of someone half-watching, half-listening and busily typing through Appalachian Spring… it horrifies me. Not in a Miss Manners sort of way – but for the typer’s loss. How do you experience performances like those without allowing yourself to be totally engrossed? It’s just a sad, sad thought.

  2. Fanastic post.. Interesingly I find tweeting at conferences keeps me more engaged as I have to process the information to bring it down to a smart 140 characters.. But then again, rarely am I being asked to engage as I am by Mahler or even Schwartz.

  3. I think a sort of respectful attempt to listen is entirely reasonable. In the same way that if one tweets during a conversation, it can show a lack of listening to the speaker. If Ta-Nehesi Coates at the Atlantic defines a person being an asshole as, a “person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms” than not to give this attention to the performers during a concert probably qualifies. This is especially true in that a concert is a shared experience and the outward self-centeredness makes it less meaningful for other patrons. I would also recommend the comedian Louis CK and his taking down of hecklers.

    If the Symphony asks for it though, I am not quite so sure whether they have redefined their offering like staging Shakespeare in modern times, using non-period instruments, or just the varied whim of the conductor. It might be no more than the equivalent of adding an accompanying dance company. Then if I am the one telling the Symphony what to do, I, not them, might be “a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms.”

  4. An observation as we are currently in our season with a premiere contemporary dance piece in Sydney. With the rise of Instagram, the simple etiquette of not taking photos during a show seems to have gone out the window. People seem to have the need to document saying ‘I was there’. While I’m an advocate of the integration of social media especially in contemporary art forms, I find this disregard of the rules quite frustrating!

    As for the generational divide, I sit in the middle – I am old enough to have been a teenager without a mobile phone or internet at home and young enough to have social media and devices now an important part of my life and especially as my work as an arts marketer!

  5. Honestly, I could care less if someone else wastes their money on the current Stoppard production by dividing their attention between stage and social media device. But when they waste MY money they’ve crossed a line. As an audience member who desires (and requires) using my full attention to understand the meaning of Stoppard (Mahler, Graham, hell, Williams), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expecting the audience member sitting next to me to have the common decency to consider how I might want to experience the event.

    Seriously, you can’t ask people to wait an hour and a half to blather their opinions to the rest of the world?

  6. This is a good issue and discussion. But isn’t a “simple” answer to this dilemma to offer “tweet seats” in the back? Keep these open and spontaneously available for whoever to move to between movements and you will have some saying how accomodating the venue is. There will always be naysayers: don’t worry about them. But give young folk the flexibility they require so we have a chance (and it may only be ONE chance) to surprise them with the build up and the climax worth the long wait.

  7. Pingback: Get Off My Lawn!!! | Drama Lit Blog 2.0: BU School of Theatre

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